Cholesterol: A type of fat necessary for building cells and some hormones. It is found in animal products and made by the liver. High levels may increase the risk for cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease.
Fatty acids: building blocks of fats.
HDL (‘good’) cholesterol: High density lipoproteins, which carry cholesterol back to the liver to be broken down and removedfrom the body.
Hydrogenation: A way of making vegetable oil harden at room temperature. This process destroys the essential fatty acids (these are good) in the oil and replaces them with trans fatty acids (these are bad).
LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol:
Low density lipoproteins, which carry cholesterol from the liver to the various body cells.
Lipids: fatty substances found in blood and body tissues. These include cholesterol and triglycerides.
Mono-unsaturated fat: A type of unsaturated fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids: A
group of unsaturated fats found in fish oil and in some seed oils (like flax). May help
lower the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Poly-unsaturated fat: Unsaturated fat of plant origin.
Saturated fat: Usually of animal origin, solid at room temperature. Will raise blood cholesterol levels.
Trans fatty acids: A type of fat created when oils are hydrogenated. This process changes the mixture into saturated fat. Found in food with ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ on the label. Reduce or eliminate these from your diet.
Triglycerides: A type of fat made up of fatty acid chains. These provide cells with energy. High levels are associated with increased risk of heart disease.
Most people have heard the term saturated fat. The defining feature about saturated fat is that it is solid or hard at room temperature. It is found in meat fat, dairy products, hard margarine, shortening, butter, and lard. It is also in many processed foods such as cookies, crackers, and snack foods (look for the words partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on the ingredients list). Many people are surprised to learn that our liver makes most of the cholesterol in our bodies, and that the saturated fat we eat is what our liver uses to make cholesterol.
Saturated fat raises low density lipoprotein (LDL) levels. LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol carries cholesterol from the liver to various cells in the body. To lower the amount of LDL you eat, choose lean meats, lower fat dairy products, and less saturated fats for cooking or baking. Search for the lowest fat snack foods, cookies and crackers you can find. Look for the term low fat on labels, and compare the amount of fat in these products. (Don’t forget to keep in mind, though, that low fat does not necessarily mean the item is low in calories.)
You may have heard of trans fatty acids, or trans fats . These fats are relatively new on the cholesterol front. They are a concern as they can impact the ratio of good to bad cholesterol in your body much more than saturated fat. Trans fatty acids are byproducts of fat processing. You will find them mostly in prepared foods such as french fries and other deep-fried foods, potato chips, cookies, crackers, donuts, cakes, and muffins. They may also increase levels of lipoprotein. Lipoprotein is suspected of being a risk factor for heart disease. To lower the amount of trans fatty acids you eat, choose lower fat foods overall. Consider replacing commercially prepared products with homemade varieties made with less harmful types of fats.
Now for some good news. There are many types of fat that may help in your quest for a healthier heart and blood vessels. Sunflower, safflower, and soya oils provide polyunsaturated fats. So do some non-hydrogenated margarines, fish, nuts, and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats have been available for many years. Using polyunsaturated fats from these foods to replace saturated fats in your diet (and consuming less total fat overall) will likely result in a lower LDL cholesterol level.
Mono-unsaturated fats are another helpful partner in the challenge to lower cholesterol. Olive and canola oils, soft non-hydrogenated margarines, nuts and seeds all provide monounsaturated fats. These may help raise high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, in addition to lowering LDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is ‘good’ as it carries cholesterol back to the liver to be broken down and removed from the body. Choose these fats instead of saturated fat, and look for improvements in LDL and possibly HDL levels.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be a delicious way to improve heart health. The best source of Omega-3 oils is cold water fish. Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and fresh tuna are good choices. They all contain the two special Omega-3 fatty acids. The first type is called alpha-linolenic acid. It is found in canola, flax, and soybean oils, and some soft non-hydrogenated margarines. You’ll also find it in nuts, tofu and other soybean products, and ground flaxseed. (Flax needs to be ground for us to benefit from the fatty acid content, as the outside coat on flaxseed is so tough that we cannot digest it.) Research shows that Omega-3 fatty acids likely lower LDL cholesterol.
The second group of Omega-3 fatty acids are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids don’t have a direct effect on the amount of cholesterol in the blood. However, they will reduce another type of fat called triglycerides. Lowering triglycerides helps improve cholesterol levels. These fatty acids also make the blood less likely to form clots on its own. This means less chance of a blood clot blocking the blood supply to the heart.
Conjugated linoleic acid is not likely to come up in day to day conversation, but it may be a type of fat you hear more about in the future. It is found in meats such as beef, veal, lamb, and turkey. Research suggests that it may protect against artery disease caused by fats, but more research is needed to figure out how and why.
Plant sterols (isoflavones) are another type of fat that you will hear about more in the future. Vegetable oils, nuts, oils, grains and legumes (especially soybeans), fruits, and vegetables all contain plant sterols in varying amounts. Plant sterols lower cholesterol by competing with cholesterol to be absorbed in the digestive system.
Though the world of fat seems to be confusing at times, there really isn’t a lot of mystery. Remember that excess fat is a potent source of excess calories and potentially worsens glucose levels in someone with diabetes. You need not exclude fat from your diet but use a variety of non-hydrogenated plant – and vegetable-based oils, grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and fish. This will provide you with all the different types of fats that you need to have a healthy heart and circulatory system. The bottom line is to find many different ways to enjoy these healthy foods. Remember that variety is the spice of life.